In his book, TheReckoning, Randall Robinson described a story told to him by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. When Jackson was running for President of the United States, he encountered an elderly white woman in the lobby of a hotel. The woman pressed a dollar into his hand and said, “I never would have been able to lift those heavy bags. Thanks again and here’s a little something for you.”
I attended the 17thAnnual Rainbow PUSH Wall Street Project Economic Summit this week at the Sheraton Hotel in New York City. Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr., Founder and President of Rainbow PUSH, opened one of the first days’ panels entitled “Opportunities for Minorities on Corporate and Non-Profit Boards. John Rogers, Jr., CEO & Chief Investment Officer of Ariel Investments moderated the discussion with the General Counsel of McDonald’s Corporation; the Senior Vice President and Community Affairs Manager of Government and Community Relations at Wells Fargo Bank; the Founder and CEO of Women in the Boardroom; and the President and CEO of The Prout Group, Inc., a small boutique executive search firm.
The panel discussion was substantive and insightful. Panelists discussed a Black Enterprise magazine publication that lists the companies with no African Americans serving on their boards. They explained that smaller and mid-size firms are less diverse than Fortune 500 firms, and discussed the fact that almost all if not every board of a technology company is all white. While listening to the discussion I thought about the media attention paid to the fact that when Facebook and Twitter went public, they did so with an all-male board. Soon after both companies completed their IPOs, a woman was nominated and elected to each board. I rarely, however, hear discussion of, or public outcry about boards that are all white, or boards that have no African Americans or Latinos.
When I left the panel discussion for a moment, while walking toward the hotel’s main lobby, I overheard an exchange between a young white woman and an African American man dressed in a suit and tie. “Do you work here?”, she asked him. When he said “no”, she did not look embarrassed. She looked annoyed. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling, perhaps frustrated by her inability to get someone who worked at the hotel to direct her to where she needed to be.
The conference attendee’s exchange with the young woman, and Jesse Jackson’s encounter as described by Randall Robinson, are familiar experiences for many Black and Latino professionals. I call them professional misidentifications and I write about them in a book chapter entitled “Workplace Racial Discrimination” in “Law and Economics: Toward Social Justice”, edited by Dana L. Gold. I have experienced many of these misidentifications. Dressed in a white robe, I, an African American woman, was mistaken for a bathroom attendant at a spa. While visiting the Central Park Conservancy garden a woman thought I was a park attendant even though the park attendants wear green uniforms. (I was wearing blue that day.) At a movie theater, while I waited for a friend, a man approached me and brusquely asked where the men’s room was. “Why would I know where the men’s room is?”, I responded. “Because you look like you work here.”, he said.
Many Black Americans experience these professional misidentifications. I have heard stories from Black lawyers mistaken for mailroom workers, or defendants; Black doctors mistaken for orderlies; black business executives mistaken for secretaries. These exchanges offer insight into the assumptions that some white Americans make about the type of work that African Americas do, and where they belong. It is likely that these assumptions impact public reaction to corporate boards that have no African Americans serving. African Americans belong in hotel lobbies helping with luggage and helping guests get to their desired location. African Americans clean parks, spa bathrooms and movie theaters. African Americans serve white Americans. They do not serve on corporate boards.
I returned to the Wall Street Project Summit the next day and I had a chance to conduct a short interview with Jesse Jackson. I’ll tell you about the interview and more about the conference in my next post.